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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JUNE 15, 1998: 

JUNK MAIL

D: Pål Sletaune; with Robert Skjærstad, Andrine Sæther, Per Efil Aske. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Roy (Skjærstad) is not anyone's idea of a conventional screen hero. He is an unsavory mess whom you would neither care to have standing behind you in a market check-out line nor sitting close by in a movie theatre. Certainly, it would be distasteful to think of him delivering your mail. But, indeed, Roy is a postman. He does not cut the heroic figure of a Kevin Costner or carry off the comedic demeanor of a Cliff Claven, and it's just possible that we may be witnessing someone "going postal" -- Norwegian style. This doesn't involve guns or violence. Rather, the signs are Roy's seriously disaffected attitude and perhaps his blatant disregard for personal hygiene. While carrying letters, Roy pilfers any that might look interesting and brings them home to steam open later; those letters that he isn't in the mood to carry, he dumps in some out-of-the-way tunnel. To bathe, he throws some dish soap at his underarms and a dish rag down his pants. He's also a bit of a voyeur, so when he spies a woman shoplifting a book, he feels an instant bond. He also happens to be the woman's mail carrier, so when he one day stumbles across her keys he uses them to let himself into her apartment. He tastes her leftover breakfast cereal, listens to her answering machine, looks through the medicine cabinet, and has a dupe of the key made. On another occasion when he's in the apartment, he falls asleep on her bed and wakes up when he hears her come in. After hiding under the bed, he begins to sneak out only to discover that she is drowning herself in the tub. The unlikely hero pulls her out, calls the Norwegian equivalent of 911, and takes off. But after sharing such intimacies -- whether consciously or not -- their lives are destined to mesh. Junk Mail accomplishes the nearly impossible by taking a creepy protagonist and making us recognize the humanity in the character and feel for his situation. First-time feature film director Sletaune exerts a real mastery over the material and as Roy, Skjærstad delivers a compassionate performance. The film's deadpan tone observes numerous wry moments (a character's wan rendition of "Born to Be Wild" in a karaoke bar is a good example) and overall, Junk Mail is droll and amusing. That the repugnant Roy can be seen as a romantic hero is a testament to the transcendent charms of Junk Mail.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED


D: Vyacheslav Krishtofovich; with Alexandre Lazarev, Tatiana Krivitiska, Eugen Pachin, Constantin Kostychin, Elena Korikova, Angelika Nevolina. (R, 100 min.)

In Krishtofovich's A Friend of the Deceased, the fall of the Soviet Union and its Communist infrastructure brings with it not freedom, but instead a kind of cold isolation, spurred on by a sudden upsurge in capitalist methodology that renders old friendships null and void and stifles almost every other aspect of life. A bleak, bitter satire from the Ukrainian director of Adam's Rib, Krishtofovish sets his film in Kiev, where the intellectual professor Anatoli (Lazarev) is trapped performing menial jobs to make ends meet. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he's discovered that his worldly views and mental prowess suddenly mean nothing to his employers or even his friends. His wife Katia (Nevolina) is blatantly cheating on him in the night and making money hand over fist as an ad exec during the day, and even his old buddy Dima (Pachin) seems to be racing down the capitalist highway to hell, selling vodka and trinkets out of his tiny corner store. When Anatoli bemoans his fate in the new world order, Dima helpfully suggests that he take out a contract on his straying wife. Heartened, Anatoli strikes upon the seemingly brilliant idea of taking out a hit on himself instead, which he does. Not long after (though after his wife finally moves out of their tiny flat), he meets up with the diminutive, sexy prostitute Vika (Krivitska) who, predictably, teaches him that not everything in his new life has to be awful. Second thoughts about the self-imposed death sentence bubble to the surface, and suddenly Anatoli finds himself taking out a second contract, via a second hit man, on the first. From here on out it's a game of cat and mouse as Anatoli must avoid killer A and hope that killer B gets the job done before Anatoli ends up in the pine box he was so looking forward to. Shades of Bulworth, I know, but Krishtofovich and his spirited players are after far larger fish. As a metaphor for the spiritual malaise following the collapse of communism in the Ukraine, it's a grim, dark spectacle of mistaken identity and covert emotions. No matter what course of action Anatoli decides on, he is still no more than leftover brain cells, a smart guy trapped in a dumb world. Working for pennies as a translator for a corrupt businessman, he shivers the night away while sleeping on the couch (his wife won't let him touch her). Lazarev has a magically expressive face. His lines are few and far between sometimes, but when he finally meets up with the elfin Vika, they're not necessary; his weary visage says it all. A grim, Eastern comedy of (t)errors, A Friend of the Deceased poses the question: "What price happiness?" and then answers via Lennon: "Happiness is a warm gun."

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



UNDER THE SKIN

D: Carine Adler; with Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham, Stuart Townsend, Christine Tremarco. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Samantha Morton makes a stunning acting debut in this wrenching British drama about two sisters, one of whom descends into a self-destructive spiral after the sudden death of their mother. We are told at the outset that Rose (Rushbrook, who is best known for her role as the jealous daughter in Secrets & Lies) and Iris (Morton) each received their names because their mother liked flowers so. Of the two girls, however, Iris has always believed that her mother liked the elder Rose more. Whether this is an actual fact or merely the fretful pangs of normal maturation is unclear, but what is certain is that the two sisters are both rivals for their mother's love. Rose, at 24 years of age, married, and pregnant, seems to be the stronger contender for the favored daughter slot, especially when compared with her flightier, 19-year-old sister Iris. Yet both girls are thoroughly unprepared for the emotional devastation they experience subsequent to their mother's sudden passing. (In a lovely turn, the mother is played by Rita Tushingham, the star of such social realist dramas of the Sixties as A Taste of Honey and The KnackÖ and How to Get It.) Unable to grieve, Iris quits her job and moves out of the apartment she shares with her live-in boyfriend and into a shabby studio that she decorates with flowers that linger about the rooms long after their expiration dates. She begins wearing her mother's overcoat and blonde wig meant to disguise the effects of chemotherapy, but the look it affords Iris is slatternly and confrontational. She also starts picking up handsome strangers for an ongoing series of experimental sexual encounters that grow increasingly degrading and, one hopes, cathartic. The long-seated tensions between the sisters mount as each grapples with finding a way to assuage her sense of abandoned misery and is too caught up in the singularity of her own pain to be of much help to the other. Writer-director Adler handles this potential hothouse atmosphere with graceful restraint and evocatively expressionist touches. She trusts her actors to do their thing and then punctuates the story with flourishes like the odd visual angles and juxtapositions (most notably, during sex Iris sees her mother's casket incinerating), jittery hand-held camerawork, and pulsating music. Adler does a remarkable job of conveying the kind of anguished soul sickness that is at a loss for words or conventional expression. The movie only falters as it brings all this pained discontent to peaceful resolution. Adler indeed takes us "under the skin" but then it's as though she performs a transfusion without ever showing us the needle prick (although pricks of another sort are in ample supply throughout the movie). Under the Skin, however, well lives up to its name.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

THE BEYOND

D: Lucio Fulci; with David Warbeck, Sarah Keller, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar, Anthony Flees, Giovanni De Nava, Al Cliver, Catriona MacColl. (Not Rated, 88 min.)

Seventeen years old and still as disgusting as it ever was. Italy's answer to George Romero is best known stateside as the man behind Zombie, that great Romero homage that graced early Eighties theatres with one of the most repulsive one-sheets of all time ("We are going to eat you!"). Fulci, who died in 1996, is experiencing a posthumous boom of sorts with this re-release courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder and Grindhouse Releasing. Like most of Fulci's gore epics, The Beyond is filled with images and scenes guaranteed to make you go "Ugh," but that's the nasty beauty of the director's work. Like compatriot Dario Argento, Fulci's films don't always operate along discernible lines of logic. Characters wander in and out of the film, never fully making much sense, and once someone's dead, there's no guarantee that he or she won't show up to devour someone's liver in the next scene. Long considered by many to be Fulci's best film (although personally I'd have to say Zombie outranks this one by a splinter), The Beyond centers around an abandoned New Orleans hotel in the process of being renovated by its inheritor, Eliza (MacColl). As the work progresses, strange things begin to occur; the painter topples screaming off of his scaffolding, the plumber has his eyes sucked out in the flooded basement, and a mysterious blind girl (Keller) appears out of nowhere and declares that the house is built on top of one of the seven gateways to hell. That much is obvious. Tarantula, zombie, and desiccated warlock attacks quickly follow, leaving Eliza and her friend John (Warbeck) to unravel the hellishness engulfing them. The gore is splattered about in high style, and although Fulci lacks the, ah, restraint of Argento, he's obviously enjoying himself here. The carnivorous tarantula attack against a woefully immobile De Nava is particularly outrageous, but it's Fulci's tone more than anything else that makes the film memorable. Fog, shadows, and the eerie pitter-pat of dripping water make The Beyond an atmospheric tale of terror to rival Mario Bava's best work, though Fulci always opts to take the low road when going for the gross-out. Does it make any sense? Nope. Does this detract from the film? Not at all. It's classic Italian Grand Guignol at its most disturbing; a car crash, autopsy, and disembowelment all wrapped up in a nice, soggy package. Enjoy.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



CAN'T HARDLY WAIT

D: Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan; with Ethan Embry, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Peter Facinelli, Seth Green, Jerry O'Connell, Jenna Elfman, Melissa Joan Hart. (PG-13, 101 min.)

Just when you thought everyone in Hollywood had forgotten about the good old days of the teen sex comedy (Porky's, Zapped, Joysticks), here comes this nice throwback that actually has more in common with the classic teen romances of the Eighties (Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) than any of that genre's lesser fare. That is to say, when it's not busy being obnoxious and pointing out the obvious stereotypes everyone in high school gets rammed into from time to time, it's all heart. Sometimes too much. The recent renaissance in post-pubescent icons glutting the airwaves (everyone from Party of Five, Sliders, and a post-Clarissa Melissa Joan Hart) has fueled a boom in the genre's evil twin, the slasher flick, so it's only fair play to turn up the heat on the late, lamented estrogen/testosterone fests as well. Thankfully, Can't Hardly Wait is less an exercise in simpering sophomoric hi-jinks than it is an amicable, occasionally hilarious meditation on young love in the Nineties. As the film opens, it's graduation day for Preston Meyers, a gangly Joe-Average mensch with a four-year-long, unrequited crush on the most popular girl at his school, Amanda Beckett (Hewitt). Until recently, Amanda had been going steady with BMOC Mike Dexter (Facinelli), but that's all over now, and the shy Preston has resolved to take his best shot at that evening's big blowout party. With smirking encouragement from his best friend Denise (Ambrose as a Janeane Garofalo-in-training), he trails Amanda from room to room, waiting for opportunity to present itself. It never does, of course, and poor Preston finds himself unceremoniously lumped in with all the other teenage horndogs eager to make a play for this newly single epicenter of the Babe Universe. Several other running subplots keep things from getting too gooey, most notably one involving class geek Kenny Fisher (Green), who arrives with plans to ambush class bully Mike, but instead discovers the wonders of alcohol and ends up single-handedly resurrecting the career of Guns 'n Roses in an inspired bit of pantomime-cum-karaoke. (Somebody should alert Slash to this guy's obvious talents.) Hardly as ridiculous as the film's trailers have been leading anyone over the age of 17 to believe, Can't Hardly Wait is a nifty little bit of nostalgia for those of us weaned on a young John Cusack or Jeff Spicolli, and, I suspect, a harbinger of things to come. Kaplan and Elfont's smart, zippy script is rife with knowing one-liners and just the right amount of preachy moralism (very little). It is also winningly directed. Nobody's going to give this one an Oscar, sure, but as far as the venerable teen sex comedy goes, this one actually makes it to third base.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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